What is Arts and Crafts?

William Morris, round Red House windows
Red House Windows

An overview of the Arts & Crafts Movement

The Design Philosophy of John Ruskin and William Morris in
English Arts & Crafts, Glasgow Style, and American Arts & Crafts


Arts & Crafts is more a philosophy of design than a set of characteristics. At the center of the Arts and Crafts Movement is something holy, a reactionary vision standing against materialism. The the spirit of Arts and Crafts is a kind of kairos, the moment when the spiritual breaks through or incarnates the spiritual into the material worlds of architecture, furnishings and the decorative arts -- and it is from that center of understanding that we can trace its lineage and its future.

Morris Chair

'Morris Chair', an adjustable back chair designed byPhilip Webb for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1866.


John Ruskin and William Morris

Although it was William Morris whose name became known as the cornerstone of the Arts and Crafts movement, it was John Ruskin's second chapter on the Nature of the Gothic in his book, The Stones of Venice wherein he expounded the Arts and Crafts heresy against 19th century industrialization:

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.... -- a heap of sawdust, so far its intellectual work in this world is concurred: saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the forms of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten years are over, into fireside humanity.

Entering Exeter College at Oxford in 1852, William Morris intended to take holy orders. At Oxford, he met Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and joined a group called 'The Brotherhood' whose members were strongly influenced by Ruskin's praise of the creative imagination expressed by medieval artisans:

On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing: and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out comes all his roughness, all dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure; pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

After spending a summer touring the the cathedrals of northern France, and being particularly stricken at the beauty of Reims Cathedral, Morris returned to England resolved to study architecture. He took up an apprenticeship at the architectural offices of George Edmund Street, a leading Gothic revival architect. Within a year, on the advice of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he abandoned architecture in favor of painting. It was during this brief time as a painter that he made the acquaintance of Jane Burden, later persuaded by Rossetti to model for their small circle of painters.

William Morris,
					The Forest Tapestry
The Forest, 1887, William Morris,Philip Webb, John Henry Dearle, Merton Abbey Workshop

The Birth of Arts and Crafts: Red House

The nineteen-year-old Jane Burden agreed to marry Morris. His friend, the architect Philip Webb whose acquaintance Morris had made during his year at Street's architectural firm, was commissioned to build Red House, their first married home. Red House is distinctly medieval in appearance. Moreover, the location of Red House was no coincidence. It was built along the path the pilgrims would have taken on their way to Canterbury, in Chaucher's Canterbury Tales.

Red House defines the early Arts & Crafts style -- with its steep roof, brock fireplaces, and ordinary materials such as stones and tiles. William and Jane were dissatisfied with the type and quality of the mass-produced furnishing they found in the shops. Morris and Burne-Jones had commissioned some pieces of furniture when they shared bachelor quarters in London, but Red House was largely unfurnished.

And now reader, look around this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishing, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly.

Morris resolved to furnish Red House himself. He paid attention to every detail, designing and handpainting the tiles in the garden porch, the 'Pilgrim's Rest'. The furnishing and decoration of Red House became a usual weekend activity for the Morrises and their friends, Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, architect Philip Webb and others.

It was one evening after a dinner at Red House that the group of friends formed the partnership of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., a business venture built on the rejection of machine-produced decorations in favor of hand-craftsmanship. The Firm initially focused on stained glass and Firm windows are still common in England's 19th century churches. The 'Morris Chair', designed by Philip Webb, is still available by catalog and online. Morris wallpaper and textile patterns are still sold in high-end shops.

Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are a sign of slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading that that of the scourged African...

But to smother their soul with them, to blight and hew into rotting pollars the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm's work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, -- this is to be slavemasters indeed... (Ruskin, Nature of the Gothic)

The defining characteristics of English Arts and Crafts are a return general simplicity of design and hand decoration of items with images and symbols that have a meaning for the user. For Morris, these included medieval themes and there is indeed a link to the ethos of the medieval artisan guilds, but as his interests grew, so did the subject matter. Persian designs and themes, the influence of old Iceland tapestries on his designs, drawing on the beauty of the natural surroundings and his personal history growing up as a child riding his pony through Epping Forest, mythic and fairy tale themes -- all of these were drawn into the circle of Arts and Crafts subjects.

Morris and the Aesthetic Movement - Not Really

Our art is the work of a small minority composed of educated persons, fully conscious of their aim of producing beauty, and distinguished from the great body of workmen by that aim. ~William Morris

The underlying philosophy of the Aesthetic movement is "Art for Art's Sake". This is not a Morris or Arts & Crafts value, whose philosophy resonates more with the Pre-Raphaelite "Art for Truth's Sake". Rossetti and Burne-Jones, summa Pre-Raphaelites both, were principals in the Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., the forerunner of Morris & Co. Yet the interiors of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (whose advertising tagline was "Fine Art Workmen") is so frequently lumped with Aesthetic Movement that it warrants mention here.

Ladies and Animals sideboard designed by Edward Burne-Jones, 1860

The Aesthetic Movement in art emphasized aesthetics over social values. Also known as Decadence on the continent, in the decorative arts, it was less a proper movement than a name given to the singular failure of English Arts and Crafts to create furnishings and decorative arts "for the people and by the people, and a source of pleasure to the maker and the user" (Morris). But this was a failure of circumstance without intentionality.

(Left: Medieval-style 'Ladies and Animals' sideboard designed and painted by Edward Burne Jones )

The rustic, medieval trestle tables and Jane's needlework were personal and human, just as Ruskin had enjoined. However, preparing such items for sale in this way was necessarily labor-intensive and therefore costly. Also Morris's income from investments had fallen off which may have contributed to the escalation of prices at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. ('The Firm') and its successor, Morris & Co. It was also about this time that Morris introduced "Trellis", the first wallpaper design, in 1864.

The prices of later Morris & Co. products -- tapestries and tile offerings -- became especially prohibitive and, sadly, only the well-to-do could afford them. Wallpaper was an exception to this. Morris himself disliked wallpaper, preferring the rich texture of tapestries. To meet the popular demand, however, Morris & Co. offered somewhat more affordable wallpapers at more reasonable prices.

Part 2: Art Nouveau to Craftsman


William Morris's Red House Weather Vane

Arts & Crafts

what is arts and crafts? (this page)

art nouveau to craftsman (part 2)

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medieval maps and bestiary


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separator scroll

Red House embroidered daisies
Daisy wallhanging designed for Red House by William Morris and embroidered by Jane Morris

Philip Webb architectural designs for the gate at Red House
Detailed designs for the gate at Red House, drawn by Philip Webb.

Red House Upper Landing
Upper Landing at Red House.

Stained glass window at Red House with Morris's motto: Si Je Puis
Stained glass window at Red House with Morris's motto: Si Je Puis

Interior of entrance door at Red House
Restored interior of the front entrance door at Red House. William Morris designed the pattern and chose bright medieval colors.

Philip Webb fireplace screen
Fireplace Screen designed by Philip
Webb for Morris & Co.

William Morris carpet: Redcar, 1881
Redcar Carpet design, William Morris, 1881. Hand-knotted at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith. Morris did eventually design some carpets for machine manufacture, his one concession to the industrialized age.

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